Tom Sawyer / Huckleberry Finn Blu-ray Review: Wild Oates and Foster Kids

Twilight Time proudly proclaims "I'll be your Huckleberry" with these '70s Mark Twain musicals from Arthur P. Jacobs and Reader's Digest.
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Years before they preyed upon lonely elderly folks with unfulfilled promises of winning phony lotteries even Ed McMahon wouldn't stamp his name on, the folks at Reader's Digest set out to lure entire families into theaters for motion pictures they produced. Thus begins one ‒ or rather, two, as it were ‒ of the strangest incarnations of Mark Twain ever to appear on any screen, big or small: the Reader's Digest Musical Adaptation. Appearing on the worn-out heels of a now-forgotten cinematic fad ‒ that of MGM's Children Matinees, wherein classic features were re-released and targeted at kids with nothing to do over the weekend ‒ the first film in the short-lived series was 1973's Tom Sawyer.

Now, even if you're the type of individual who detests movies with child actors ‒ or, worse, musical movies with child actors ‒ there is still an awful lot of amazingness going on in Tom Sawyer. From its marketable musical angle, we are treated to the songwriting styles of frequent Disney collaborators Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (they're the ones who wrote the earworm wormhole of a ditty known as "It's a Small World," just in case you have always wondered who was to blame). Joining the songwriters is none other than future JawsStar Wars, and Indiana Jones composer/legend John Williams, in what would prove to be his last non-solo work.

While that there might be your cue to order this Twilight Time Blu-ray release, just wait. It's about to get even weirder. For you see, boys and girls, Tom Sawyer just happens to hail from the same man who brought us the whole of the original Planet of the Apes series, Arthur P. Jacobs. In fact, between Tom Sawyer and its 1974 follow-up, Huckleberry Finn (also included on this double-feature disc), there are at least a dozen crew connections to the entire first Apes franchise alone. But that's still not the most amazing part. No, rather, that honor goes to Tom Sawyer's cast ‒ namely that of Sam Peckinpah regular Warren Oates, who seems quite comfortable breaking out into song.

It's not so much that the late cult movie legend can sing (spoiler alert: he didn't quit his day job) so much as the fact he does. In fact, there is ultimately something about seeing Warren Oates break out into a song-and-something-resembling-a-dance routine that resulted in another sliver of my broken soul healing itself. Just like the fucking magic that it is. But, in the event you scaled a different plateau of film appreciation other than my own (or you are still fortunate enough to possess a whole, functional soul), you might be able to toss an inkling of your respect towards Tom Sawyer for one of its supporting actresses ‒ a little girl from down the lane named Jodie Foster.

Former Family Affair star Johnny Whitaker takes the lead here as Mark Twain's eponymous creation, who has a tendency to tell tall tales and get into a heap of trouble, much to the chagrin of his frustrated Aunt Polly (Celeste Holm, looking a bit like Hillary Clinton). Resembling an easier-to-look-at version of Carrot Top fused with another great character actor, Frank Jenks, Whitaker's Sawyer goes through all of the time-honored steps the original Twain story took, adding the occasional (not constant, thankfully) musical number when the time is right. Johnny's Tom even impresses Jodie's Becky Thatcher by taking a lashing for her; something John Hinckley Jr. never even thought to do.

Also appearing in this enjoyable film is future teenage Clark Kent Jeff East as Huck Finn, Lucille Benson as the Widder Douglas, Henry Jones (who had previously appeared in Disney's Napoleon and Samantha, also featuring Johnny Whitaker and Jodie Foster), and Noah Keen. A further Sam Peckinpah connection appears in with the casting of the great Dub Taylor, who ‒ fortunately ‒ gets to share some entertaining screen time with Mr. Oates. Another Taylor, this time named Don, previously helmed Escape from the Planet of the Apes for producer Jacobs, directed the adaptation, as written for the screen by the Sherman Bros. Charley Pride sings the theme tune, aptly dubbed "The River Song."

Tom Sawyer earned several award nominations, including several Oscar noms. Strangely, the movie wound up snatching a win in one of the most unlikely of places: it won First Prize at the Moscow Film Festival, making Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman the first Yankees ever bestowed with such an honor. Perhaps that odd bit of international recognition resulted in their next musical adaptation of Mark Twain, 1974's Huckleberry Finn. Once again backed by Reader's Digest, this second offering from virtually the same people is generally regarded as the bastard redheaded stepchild of the two movies, which is ironic considering Tom Sawyer was the ginger here.

This time directed by J. Lee Thompson ‒ who had directed the last two Planet of the Apes films (Conquest… and Battle...) and would later become a regular collaborator with Charles Bronson, including the guilty pleasure 10 to MidnightHuckleberry Finn contains very little of the charm the previous title exhibits. In fact, this one pretty much falls right into that classification of musicals with child actors people such as myself tend to avoid. And frankly, it hurts to even say that, especially since Huckleberry Finn not only co-stars the late great Paul Winfield as Jim, but also features the pairing of Harvey Korman and David Wayne as "The King" and "The Duke," respectfully.

Jeff East (who aged about six years between productions somehow) returns as the young Mr. Finn himself, and Lucille Benson reprises the part of the Widder Douglas in a cameo. Even with cinematography by László Kovács, there isn't much to marvel at here. Most of the Shermans' musical numbers (which Mr. Korman particularly revels in engaging in) are lackluster, and feel like they're in the wrong places compared to Tom Sawyer. But then, this production was plagued with problems, beginning with the death of Arthur P. Jacobs half-way through filming; a tragedy which was followed by additional problems, including the threat of a lawsuit by theme song performer Roberta Flack.

Ultimately, I think a lot of Huckleberry's (on-screen) flaws probably stem from experienced action director J. Lee Thompson tackling a musical. (You know, kind of like the time they let dramatic filmmaker Marc Forster direct Quantum of Solace?) But whatever the case, the fact Twilight Time has given us both of these strange little goodies from early '70s cinema on one Blu-ray makes this well worth the purchase price, so just pretend Huckleberry Finn is a bonus feature and all will be good! As for the presentations of these two films, they are both light-years away from MGM's horrible ol' pan-and-scan DVD versions (ick), with Tom Sawyer receiving the most love out of the lot.

Both movies are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios and in 1080p. Tom Sawyer looks darn near perfect, while MGM's HD restoration of Huckleberry Finn shows a fair amount of damage throughout. But it's the first movie everybody ‒ even MGM ‒ prefers, since Tom Sawyer gets most of the special features here, beginning with multiple audio options in DTS-HD MA 5.1 with 4.0 and 2.0 options recreating the original theatrical soundtracks. Two audio commentaries are also included for Tom Sawyer, the first of which is a newly-recorded track with Kritzerland's Bruce Kimmel (The First Nudie Musical) and composer/author Richard M. Sherman.

Both Shermans are heard on the second audio commentary (Robert B. passed away in 2012), which was originally recorded for the 1994 MGM LaserDisc release along with director Don Taylor (who left this world in 1998). Also culled from the LD version are two archival featurettes, a behind-the-scenes promotional item, and a brief, rare look at the Shermans and John Williams collaborating together. Speaking of music, both features include options to view the films with Overture and Exit compositions. Each title also sports English (SDH) subtitles, isolated (and mostly lyric-less) scores in DTS-HD MA 2.0, and the respective title's original theatrical trailer.

Julie Kirgo's lovingly-written liner notes about both titles conclude the extras for this release in the included collectible booklet (which also features several stills). Alas, the third and final Reader's Digest musical adaptation ‒ a version of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop from 1975 with Anthony Newley, David Hemmings, David Warner, and music by Elmer Bernstein ‒ has yet to be seen anywhere outside of fairly rare pan-and-scan videocassette releases. But, then again, from what I have read and heard about it, that should be considered as something of a blessing.

All in all, there's something here for everyone. Even those of us who generally don't do musicals. Planet of the Apes fans may seek this Twilight Time two-fer out of curiosity (oh, and yes, Arthur P. Jacobs' widder Natalie Trundy ‒ who appeared in every Apes sequel, usually as a different character ‒ pops up in one of the films). There's also the Jodie Foster factor to consider, or maybe you just like that Mark Twain feller. Who knows. Ultimately, Twilight Time's Limited Edition release of Tom Sawyer / Huckleberry Finn should be a must for you Warren Oates fans out there. But don't dilly-dally about, since this one is limited to only 3,000 copies.

Recommended.

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